Host Families Program opens hearts and homes for the holidays

CULLOWHEE – When you think about the holidays, you probably imagine good times with family and friends, celebrating long-standing traditions or making new ones.

Now imagine this – you can’t get home. No family gathering. No customs shared with close family members. No traditional meals together. That’s what it’s like for many of the 81 international students at Western. It’s simply too far or too expensive for them to go home.

Instead, some, like Balamurguan Vijan of India, visited relatives in other states. Others, including Graham Clarke of Ireland who planned to go to Disneyworld for Thanksgiving, visit tourist destinations. They just have to make the best of the situation whenever the campus is closed.

Western’s Jane Adams-Dunford, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, is hoping to add some cheer to that grim picture. She’s heading up the university’s Host Families Program this year. “We especially need families to host students during the holidays and long breaks,” Adams-Dunford says. “Students who are far from their native countries can’t just go home whenever classes are over.”

Marilyn Chamberlin, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology who headed the Host Families Program for years, says host families can do as little or as much as they wish for their guests. Some hosts provide friendship with just a meal and an occasional visit. Others make the students a part of their families for the entire school year and more.

Terry Kinnear, associate professor of management and international business, speaks enthusiastically about the program. He and his wife are taking a break as hosts this year, but they have opened their home to students for the past 10 or 11 years – students from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland and China. “We spend a lot of time with them,” Kinnear says. “They come to our house, we treat them like our own son.” With some, the bond becomes very close. And then, of course, they graduate or go out on their own. “It is almost like watching your own child going away” he said, with some sadness.

But he has no regrets. His family first joined the program to provide cultural enrichment for their son, and that generally worked well. Kinnear says, “We’ve gained so much in friendship.” In fact, he and his family are still in regular e-mail contact with some of his former guests and have visited in their homes in Europe.

Kinnear’s advice to anyone who’s thinking about becoming a host? “Just do it,” he says.

For more information about the Host Families Program, call the Office of Student Affairs at 227-7234.